Bois d’Arc Lake Environmental Mitigation Restores Former Industrial Cattle Ranch to Thriving Forests and Wetlands

Riverby Ranch Project Includes Planting of 6 million new trees, restoration of thousands of acres of wetlands, grasslands and streams

 By Galen Roberts

On the former Riverby Ranch, the wildlife is coming back. In fact, multiple bird and animal species can be found everywhere across the marshes and native grasslands that make up what used to be a heavily active cattle ranch. Now, populations of native birds, reptiles, pollinator insects and even small mammals have an area of wildland the size of 11,000 consecutive football fields to call home. This is because of the largest contiguous environmental restoration project of its kind in North America.

As part of the environmental mitigation for North Texas Municipal Water District’s Bois d’Arc Lake reservoir project, we purchased the Riverby Ranch property to restore the balance of nature in the area where the lake was constructed and create a habitat for wildlife creatures who call North Texas home. At North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD), environmental stewardship is in our DNA, and the Riverby Ranch mitigation demonstrates our commitment to protecting our ecological habitats for future generations of North Texans.

Over two summers, University of North Texas (UNT) graduate student Tessa Boucher monitored the bird population across 15,000 of acres of forests, wetlands, grasslands and shrublands at Riverby and said the return of bird species signifies success for the project.

“I’ve found freshly built nests, nests with eggs, and large flocks of juveniles at the end of the season. This is great news because certain birds are species of concern due to habitat loss, but especially in terms of their habitat for breeding,” Boucher said.

As the overseer of the Bois d’Arc Lake project, NTMWD collaborated with environmental expert Resource Environmental Solutions (RES) for the Riverby Ranch restoration efforts and took extraordinary care to return thousands of acres to their original, lush condition. More than 6 million trees were planted, and 2,500 acres transitioned back to forested lands. Furthermore, the massive environmental restoration project enhanced over 6,000 acres of wetlands, planted 3,200 acres of native grassland, and restored multiple streams.

Willow Branch Creek

One of those streams is Willow Branch Creek, which cuts through the center of the ranch area, carrying more than 15 square miles of water that fall within its watershed. Through our contract with RES, NTMWD restored this creek to its original, healthy state, which included reestablishing its wavy, winding shape and healthy riverside profile. The entire creek system had been eroded down to 20 feet below the original floodplain, and in some places, the channel had been eroded as wide as 60 feet. Our restoration put it back on its floodplain and delivered two miles of restored channel system that had been abandoned for decades, slowing the speed of water to ensure it would collect in the wetlands and support wildlife.

After the original riverbed was identified and reestablished, natural materials and native vegetation were strategically placed to help the restored creek bends and curves hold their shape. And when the water returned to the area, so did the fauna. First with the bottom-of-the-chain ecosystems closest to the ground: the insects, worms, crustaceans, and rodents. Then, after some time had passed, the frogs, snails, and amphibians populated the streams and shallow marshes. The snakes came back to eat the frogs, and then the birds followed suit once this food web had expanded.

Experts like Jim Bednarz, a senior lecturer on Avian Ecology at UNT, recommend looking toward the sky to measure the success of a restoration project. “If the birds—the apex predators—are thriving, it’s a good indication a multitude of species is also healthy within that ecosystem,” Bednarz said.

More than 100 species of birds have been observed on the wetlands thus far, many of which are of high conservation concern. As the thousands of acres of forest habitats mature, we anticipate the bird population will more than double, bringing more mammals, such as raccoons, foxes, and bobcats.

By acquiring this ranch, we were able to restore it to a natural utopia. This restoration of trees, rivers, and other habitats results in a highly resilient landscape that supports a diverse set of inhabitants, including pollinators, predators, and birds of prey. As a result of our collaborations with other conservation experts and environmentalists, this area of our state will be monitored and studied over the next two decades to ensure impeccable stewardship of our shared environmental resources.

It will take many years to fully understand how great of an impact this massive restoration project will have. Through our partnerships with RES and UNT, we’ll see how the local bird population adapts and fares in their new, responsibly stewarded habitat. We hope to see through our continued collaboration with the environmental sciences that we’ve provided not just a home for hundreds of species of endangered or protected birds but also a place to witness the multitude of benefits that are delivered by such a large restoration project.

Throughout this process, we learned so much about this land and how to adapt to each challenge that arose.

Above all, we learned about the power our community has when we come together and listen to people who’ve lived on this land for generations. Since the restoration, we’ve been planting, testing, and measuring so we can provide our findings to the larger Texas ecological and educational community—so future generations and projects can understand what works. This contributes to the overall knowledge of restoration practices that we can share not just locally but globally.